Award-winning author, podcaster, and would-be ghostwriter of El Chapo’s memoir Patrick Radden Keefe on his life, career in investigative journalism, and the stories he has found along the way.
On October 12, Bwog writers Maya Reisner and Daniel Shneider attended an installment of Columbia University’s yearly Nonfiction Dialogues. This time, the author was Patrick Radden Keefe, investigative journalist, author, and lawyer by training. Aside from working as a staff writer for The New Yorker, Radden is also the author of five books, most notably Empire of Pain: The Secret Hisory of the Sackler Dynasty and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.
Radden, after being introduced by Professor Lis Harris, began by reading the preface to his new book, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks. Laughing to himself, he read about the time in May of 2014 when he received a mysterious call after writing about El Chapo in The New Yorker. It turns out, he revealed, that the Guzman family and El Chapo himself had heard about the article, and their attorney was reaching out to ask Keefe to write his memoir. Without a moment’s hesitation, he declined. He then paused to explain to the audience that while it may have been an incredible opportunity, he was worried that writing the memoir of El Chapo would cause him to write from the perspective of a man who was responsible for thousands of deaths, and that he was concerned he wouldn’t be able to portray the story in a way that takes the tragedies and victims into account.
When asked about his method of including a section in each piece tracing back to where he got the information he used, Keefe began to speak about how he was a lawyer by training. He explained that, in having a legal background, he wanted his readers to be able to fact check and trace his information. Furthermore, he said, he wants his readers to know where the information came from and who he spoke to, and avoid legal issues.
Touching upon his writing process, Keefe detailed that, before beginning to write novels and pieces beyond the extent of an article, he would study and take apart other pieces to see how they were done. Through studying structures, he created a blueprint for himself, one that he thought would make the knowledge most accessible to the reader. In Empire of Pain, he explained, he strayed away from his usual process of outlining the details as a revelation came to him only toward the end of writing the novel. A self-declared outlining fanatic, he prefers to outline during his research to organize how he will approach writing the book. While he remains open to surprises and discoveries along the writing process, he prefers this organization to prevent him from endlessly proliferating individual facts that make up the greater story. Most importantly, Keefe explained, was that he intentionally writes in a way that takes into account the cognitive load of the reader, presenting the facts in a way that are conducive to understanding the story at large.
The following question asked delved into Keefe’s ability to display humanity in his characters despite writing about people who have committed atrocities. Keefe responded that he isn’t interested in caricaturistic villains. To him, the people he writes about are humans just like anyone else, and the main question he likes to address is when and how they got off of the road of conventional morality. Furthermore, he explained that those we perceive as the villains often don’t think of themselves that way, and that the key to writing about these people is to try and understand what they tell themselves and believe they are doing from their own perspective. The key to narrative journalism, he said, is turning the subjects into characters, and making sure the readers feel like they could be in a room with the people they are reading about rather than only having a telescopic view.
Opening up the dialogue to audience questions, Patrick Radden Keefe continued to share several anecdotes from his past, culminating in one audience member asking about his start as a writer. Keefe responded simply, “I always knew I wanted to write for the New Yorker, I just thought that the process of getting there in the late ‘90s was mystifying and secretive.” After getting his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, he began to pitch a ton of ideas to various places, never getting any interest. However, after the tragic event of 9/11, Keefe realized that the work he had done investigating the NSA was now relevant, and his pitch was accepted by The New Yorker in 2005. Despite this accomplishment, Keefe was not permanently on staff until 2012, working at think tanks, writing other books, and completing fellowships in the meantime.
Another audience member asked about Wind of Change, the investigative journalism podcast that Radden had begun in 2020. In this podcast, he talked about how the song “Wind of Change” had been tied to the end of the Cold War. After hearing that the song had been written by the CIA, he began looking into whether this conspiracy theory had any weight to it or if it was simply a rumor. He chose the podcast format for this piece as he realized the empirical ambiguity and lack of a solution wouldn’t have made the story into a good book. The investigation, however, seemed to be a good piece to do a podcast on as he could not only show the process of investigating, but also worry less about proving and checking his information as he focused on his central question: how prone are people to being skeptical or believing conspiracy theories?
To Keefe, the labyrinthine nature of journalism is part of the fun. Attempts to get to the heart of the story are often unsuccessful, but pose challenges that actually improve the quality of the investigation. Keefe stressed a particular episode in The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, where he attempted to interview Sister Ping, the leader of a smuggling ring helping people escape China. After Ping finally agreed to meet with Keefe, the warden of the prison where she was kept (FPC Alderson, aka “Camp Cupcake,” where Martha Stewart served her sentence) refused to let him conduct the interview. Keefe said he was devastated, but eventually found a way in; using Ping’s trusted translator, he could ferry her questions and get more revealing answers than he could if he went in. Journalism is just as much about persistence as it is about the investigation itself, Keefe said.
After the formal Q&A was over, we approached Keefe to ask what advice he would give to people who are just starting out their careers in journalism. He circled back to his six years as a freelance journalist and the various, non-journalism related degrees he received during this time. He explained that he went to law school after feeling that being a journalist was not in the cards for him. The best advice he had was to keep trying and pitch as much as possible, because you never know when your pitch will be relevant or interesting to someone.
We want to thank Patrick Radden Keefe for not only taking the time to speak to us, but also being so frank in his assessment of his past experiences. He truly captured how becoming successful in journalism is not a linear process, and that, even in nonfiction writing, there are various degrees of creative expression that must be taken into account. An additional thank you to Professor Lis Harris for organizing and interviewing this nonfiction dialogue.
Maya, Daniel, and Keefe via Maya’s phone